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Asia travel

Tips from a Tokyo street photographer: an insider’s guide to people-watching, and where to eat and drink

  • Lukasz Palka has spent over a decade in Tokyo working as a photography tour guide, and shares his secrets on the city’s most picturesque spots
  • From stunning glass facades to chilled out bars to tranquil neighbourhoods, he has the curious visitor covered
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2018, 8:15am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2018, 8:15pm

Lukasz Palka has spent over a decade in Tokyo, equipped with a camera, ready to immortalise the city’s fleeting moments with the swift flick of the shutter.

The Polish born, US-raised photographer began his career in Japan as a teacher, but within a year or two of arriving realised the confines of city living saw him stuck in similar routines; work, eat, bed, repeat.

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A conscious and fateful purchase changed his life. “I did not get out enough,” says Palka. “So I thought if I got a camera I’d go out and shoot.” It was a simple premise, but an effective one, and Palka’s shutterbug tendencies propelled him to co-found a business in 2014.

Fuelled by a desire to share a different side of the city with visitors, he now co-runs EYExplore, a photographic workshop tour company based in Tokyo, with offshoots in Kansai.

As a man who spends most of his waking hours on the city’s streets, always on the lookout for the perfect shot, Palka knows the city better than most making him the ideal guide on where to shoot, explore, eat, and drink in Tokyo.

Street photography and a bird’s-eye view

Nissan’s Ginza Place (Chome-8-1 Ginza, Chuo) is one of Palka’s favourite “hidden in plain sight” street photography secrets. The building is home to Nissan and Sony’s new global flagship showrooms, and the facade of the structure, covered in over 5,000 aluminium panels is striking, but what Palka comes here for are the glass windows on the first floor.

As the sun begins its afternoon descent, the light that reflects off the building’s mirrored windows creates a real-life kaleidoscopic illusion – perfect photographic fodder.

“The angle is already cool, but if you get the right person, then it’ll make a really perfect photo,” says Palka. “Street photography is all about the moment.”

Shopping is practically an official sport in Ginza, and the neighbourhood is dotted with designer flagship stores and multi-stored luxury shopping outlets. If you have the right eye and a little curiosity, these spots offer some incredible vantage points for exploring the city. The large open public rest spot on the sixth floor of Tokyu Plaza Ginza (5 Chome-2 Ginza, Chuo) is one such example.

“In the winter I take people here often,” says Palka. “It’s also great when the weather is bad because you get a great shot of a sea of umbrellas. It is a spot that’s easy to overlook, because you wouldn’t expect there to be a viewing place like this for free.”

Even if you do not have a camera, you can sit on one of the rows of seating looking out onto all the action below and enjoy the view.

Time travel

People always talk about Tokyo’s futuristic side; skyscrapers and robot-staffed restaurants, but the inconspicuous Shimbashi Biru (2 Chome-16-1 Shimbashi, Minato), an entertainment complex in the business district of the city, is a time capsule.

“It's full of old men in suits playing video games. I love this place,” says Palka. “I haven’t shared it with many people, but I just come here for fun. The people playing classic Chinese and Japanese games, mahjong and go, are great to shoot. If you go to Shimbashi, you get all the Showa-era stuff. It’s so interesting, you could easily be back in the 1960s.”

The Showa-era, refers to the period of Japanese history relating to the reign of the Showa Emperor, Hirohito, from December 25, 1926 until his death on January 7, 1989.

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Camera shopping

Tokyo is a photographer’s sweet shop. Scattered throughout the city are electronic megastores towering above independently run vintage camera shops. The language barrier can be tricky when looking for something unique, but Lemon Camera is a consignment store where photographers from all backgrounds are welcome.

The chain has branches in Shinjuku, Akihabara and Nagoya, but Palka’s favourite is the Ginza outpost (Ginza church building 8F, 4-chome, Chuo-ku), which sits right by the iconic Fujiya building.

“There’s a whole bunch of camera stores in Ginza, a lot of them are overpriced, but Lemon Camera is great,” he says. “Although the staff do not speak much English, they will serve you and let you look around. It is almost like a museum in there.”

Architecture hunting

Designed by US architect Rafael Viñoly, The Tokyo International Forum (3 Chome-5-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda) has sleek, liquid lines and reflective glass panels that are a study in architectural art, and one that Palka recommends to his photographer friends.

“You can come anytime, and it’s just beautiful. It’s great for a standard shot, but I like to use the glass to get reflections. No matter how you shoot it you’re going to get some stunning results, but it’s good to think outside the box.”

Completed in 1996, this glass ocean was crafted with the intent to stand out from the cold concrete of surrounding Tokyo, but also be accessible to the public. It is often home to trade, art, and cultural events, and you can visit anytime from 7am until 11.30pm.

Off the tourist radar

The vibrant but largely residential neighbourhoods of Nakano and Ikebukuro are excellent places to see the colours and characters of everyday Tokyo. “They’re under appreciated by tourists, so you never see them there,” says Palka. “The locals are almost happy to see you.” Palka lives in Ikebukuro and has seen all sides of the suburb. “It is a little gritty, but safe. On the east side is the shopping, the young [generation’s] area. It’s like a mini Akihabara, with manga, and cosplayers – there’s so much to see.”

Local eats and people watching

Gado-shita (2 Chome Shinbashi Minato), which translates to “below the girder” is a cluster of ramshackle bars, and smoke-stained yakitori restaurants tucked under the elevated tracks of the JR Yamanote Line in typical Japanese space-efficient fashion.

“In summer all the smoke comes out of the grills, it’s where all the salarymen hang out. It’s not a touristy spot, not a lot of young people come around here.

The city is definitely changing; hopefully, they try and preserve some of this old style.”

You really feel like you’re back in the 1970s. It’s just more pure, more wholesome
Photographer Lukasz Palka on the Gado-shita area in Tokyo

A taste of historical Tokyo

Ask Palka to take you somewhere you can see the history of the city, and chances are he’ll take you somewhere often criminally overlooked, like Sugamo, a quaint neighbourhood six stops northwest of Ueno on the Yamanote line. “They call this area the grandma’s Harajuku,” he explains. “You really feel like you’re back in the 1970s. It’s just more pure, more wholesome.”

The area is home to Tokyo’s last running tram, the Toei Arakawa Line which adds to its old-world atmosphere. “This is one of the first things I ever really discovered in Tokyo when I started to photograph and explore the city way back when,” he says.

“The line starts in Waseda, but get on here at Koshinzuka Station (2 Chome-7 Nishisugamo, Toshima, Sugamo) and every few stations, get off and explore.”

Refuel with caffeine

To spend entire days darting through Japan’s capital, you will either need superhuman fitness or a lot of caffeine. Palka’s favourite cafes are in Ikebukuro. “The coffee at Roasted Coffee Kouhitei [7-2 Higashimaki Building, 1 Chome Higashi Ikebukuro Toshima] is excellent. They make pour-over coffee, and each cup the coffee is served in is different.”

If you want something more robust, just a few metres down the road is the legendary Coffee Kura (1 Chome-39-11Nishiikebukuro, Toshima), which serves 12 hour-cold-brew in a giant wine glass. “It's quite strong” warns Palka, but it’s good. “The guy that owns the place is known around town as a master of coffee”.

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A hard-earned drink

As the day rolls on and it’s time to unwind, slip into one of the city’s ubiquitous but mysterious bars. For a local Tokyo scene, stay in Ikebukuro and pop by Bar Full House (2 Chome-63-6 Ikebukuro, Toshima), an intimate, low key hang-out populated by friendly regulars and those in the know.

“The owner’s got an old-style jukebox, and an endless selection of records,” says Palka. “He makes a great martini and is happy to play any records he has on request. He also makes seasonal cocktails – during the summer, his Watermelon Salty Dog is refreshing and delicious.”